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Veronica Vega: For years I had a hard time deciding between writing, painting or dancing. It was writing that proved to make the most sense financially in the short term. I live in Alamar, an aborted project for a city that only breathes from what’s left of nature, from the alternative cultural scene, and above all, from the infinite will of the human soul. I’m not a journalist. Writing in HT has been an opportunity to say what I believe can be improved in Cuba.

Bribes and red carpets

November 13, 2017 |

Veronica Vega

Values. Illustration by Yasser Castellanos

HAVANA TIMES — A friend told me about an ethical conflict: he had managed to get a medical appointment for his wife who has problems with her thyroid. He was even given the “gift” he’d have to hand over to the specialist.

Both the appointment and the gift were wangled by a cousin who works in the health sector. In order to put his mind at ease, I told him that his cousin was only trying to keep her own connections. And as the present hadn’t been her idea, she would only be the intermediary.

This argument and the memory of long waiting lines in hospital lobbies, negligent medical attention or even abuse which only add to his wife’s frustation thereby worsening her symptoms made up his mind. Then talking about the result, he said in astonishment:

“It was like they had laid out a red carpet… What courtesy, what attention at that hospital!

Once my mother needed to be admitted into hospital in order to have some exams done, a nurse friend ended up getting her an appointment at the Calixto Garcia hospital, appealing desperately to doctors she knew. She knew that I didn’t have any money for “gifts”. However, even friends think that “you can’t take advantage.” And in order to “not take advantage” you need to ask with your hands full.

Back then, I was told that being admitted into a hospital like Amejeiras cost 50 CUC.

In an edition of Vitral magazine which I still have (without the cover, so I don’t know the date), there’s an excellent article dedicated to this current Cuban issue: “Bribes” by Virgilio Toledo Lopez.

The author writes, “When men and women are forced or prompted to need to bribe in order to receive what corresponds to them, by right, we are faced with one of the most terrible ways to live interpersonal and social relationships between citizens. This display of corruption shows us the extent of the moral and civic decline that our society is facing, where a culture and lifestyle has been created where “the world works and is moving in reverse,” where good things are called bad and bad things are called good…”

At this point, and unless you don’t have the means, the majority of the population doesn’t see bribing as a source of moral conflict. The inverted pyramid of values is a done deal. They don’t believe in the system, and even those who still do have faith in the government, attributing the countless failures in all services to the “opportunistic bureaucracy”.

The constant experience of being forgotten and abused has killed their honesty. Their faith in justice has been trampled. They no longer think in terms of “rights” but of “resolving” their problems.

Why can’t you take a snack to a doctor who has a measly lunch and the huge responsibility of alleviating people’s pain and even saving lives? Why can’t you give a gift to a teacher, not for her praiseworthy teaching but so “she doesn’t have it in for my kid”?

Why can’t you pay 5, 10, 20 CUC to speed up a process that you need to get done quickly if officials only put obstacles in the way? Why can’t you pay the bus driver 5 pesos to sit down without having to queue up, or to let me on with a piece of furniture, or a full bag, or that lets me get off where I need to, even though it isn’t an official stop?

Why can’t you pay for a job with “looking”? Why can’t you pay for a pass or a qualification, if teachers themselves have already set a price? Payment can be made in cash, in kind or in sexual favors.

Today, buying and selling property is a legal right, but even when it wasn’t people still bought and sold, they were just protected by a complex network of corruption. Back then, bribing was just returning a necessary social function.

Virgilio Toledo Lopez lists some causes for bribes and he puts moral and civic decline at the top, followed by insufficient wages. I would invert the order of these two or at best, put them on par with each other. Because the moral education of each individual should include the right to receive fair payment for their work. You can’t be educated in the opposite of where society is heading. We are an inherent part of this machine. In order for honesty to be a continuous practise, a framework that sustains this is needed.

I remember a very honest friend who was an ardent Communist who ended up installing a device in his home that stole electricity from the street, so most of his electricity consumption wasn’t recorded or included in his monthly bill. He justified his solution with this sentence: “Inhumane systems of government can’t demand moral behavior.”

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  • Moses Patterson

    Excellent article. So very true. As a tourist in Cuba, I am expected to pay bribes for nearly everything. To be clear, the amount of the bribe itself is miniscule relative to my means to pay. Everything from bici-taxis to the best seats to the National Ballet come at a premium to the bribes exacted from locals. Here’s the irony: When I have challenged paying the bribe, however blithely, the Cuban recipient has “righteously” defended it. Think about that for a minute….many Cubans believe they have a RIGHT to cheat.